The battle over electronic cigarettes has been raging for years around these central questions: Are they safe? Can they train you how to stop smoking? Are they a gateway to smoking? Are there long-term health effects?
The truth is, it’s hard to say — according to the official statements of the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. After all, e-cigarettes are unregulated and always have been.
That’s why those public health groups, along with many others, have joined the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) to file suit against the FDA for a regulatory delay that gives e-cig manufacturers until August 2022 to submit their wares for review. Until then, e-cigarette companies can keep selling to the masses, spending $125 million a year for advertising.
And at least for teens, the marketing works. From 2011 to 2015, high school students flocked to e-cigarettes, accounting for a whopping 900 percent jump in just five years, according to the Office of the Surgeon General. And if you gathered a gym full of kids from sixth to 12th grade, more than 1 in 4 have likely taken a puff.
Why are they so popular for young people? The ads probably help, and celebrities who “vape” do, too. But even more than that, students and adults alike hold tight to a pervasive myth: “E-cigs are a healthy alternative to smoking.” The science says otherwise.
Vapor Smoking Dangers
In their official statement, the American Lung Association pointed to a laundry list of health concerns linked with e-cigarettes, from nicotine to cancer-causing chemicals.
Scientists also found formaldehyde, a flammable substance used in construction materials, in the handheld devices. And often, those and other carcinogens hide behind candy flavors touted by the e-cig manufacturers, like gummy bear, mango and chocolate.
All of this plays a major argument in the AAP’s lawsuit against the FDA, in which plaintiffs call the regulatory delay “an ill-advised action that will have devastating and substantial public health effects.”
In response to the AAP’s March 2018 filing, and an April 18 letter from the plaintiffs, the FDA has announced two major initiatives to curb e-cigarette sales to young people. The first, announced six days after the letter, cracks down on retailers selling the highly popular JUUL vaporizer and works to close online sales to anyone under 18.
In a news release, the AAP acknowledged that announcement, claiming that the agency should do more to “prevent [the] introduction of kid-friendly tobacco products instead of acting after the fact.”
One month later, the FDA sent requests to major manufacturers to get a clearer grasp on those companies’ marketing practices and the allure of e-cigarettes for teens.
As of this writing, the AAP had not yet responded to the FDA’s most recent announcement. The case is still pending in the US District Court for the District of Maryland.
E-cigarettes and Employees
So what does all of this mean for the workplace? Smoking-cessation programs that teach participants how to stop smoking can encompass e-cigarette smoking — and in tandem with workplace wellness incentives can help curb the rate of employees who smoke or vape.
But if you’d like to go as far as codifying a policy that restricts e-cigarettes, HR experts say you should feel empowered to do so. After all, the same issues surrounding workplace smoking — offensive odors to nonsmoking employees and productivity cuts via frequent smoke breaks, for example — surround “vaping,” too.
That said, before appending e-cigarettes to an existing no-smoking policy, factor in these considerations from the Society for Human Resource Management:
- Seek a legal review of the existing smoking policy to gauge the extent of changes needed. Pay attention to wording: A policy that only bans tobacco smoking or tobacco doesn’t cover e-cigarettes. If you have no smoke-free policy, the American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation provides a sample that also includes verbiage for e-cigarettes.
- Check local or state laws that may affect your ability to ban vaping at the workplace. The American Nonsmokers’ Rights Foundation has a list of them for reference.
- Revise the policy to include verbiage that addresses e-cigarettes, and notify employees of the change. Add the policy change to workplace materials, such as employee handbooks and posted signage.
- Ensure that revisions don’t inadvertently discriminate, for instance enacting hiring incentives for nonsmokers in a way that could discriminate against smokers.
In addition to the suggestions above, consider sharing the Surgeon General’s “Know the Risks” campaign website. While the site primarily targets young adults, the campaign does contain helpful videos, fact sheets and other materials that employees and their families may find helpful.
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